Tom Waits for no one

Or: Looking for the heart of South by Southwest

From March 17 to 21, they came from all over the country--all over the world--to piss and moan. The complaints reverberated so loudly that, at times, you could barely hear the music. To refer to the mood at this year's annual South by Southwest Music Conference as grim is an understatement; Jewish funerals are more uplifting. No punk-rock band from Japan, no matter how loud it played, could drown out the sound of the music industry collapsing around itself, crushing anyone who stood beneath its awning.

The business, we kept being reminded during the conference, is on its last legs, terrified of mergers and the Internet, struggling to remake itself before the bottom line falls out. Soon enough, there will be one record label left, and it will be operated by The Seagram Company's Web site, which will charge $45 for every MP3 you download--though you will get a free 6-ounce bottle of Captain Morgan Original Spiced Rum with every purchase. Any casual record-buyer who thinks he or she isn't going to be affected by the business of music is horribly wrong.

Three words said it all: Right Said Fred.
Three thousand other bands wanted to play SXSW--hoping, no doubt, to be signed by a major label on Saturday and dropped on Sunday--and conference honchos chose to give a showcase slot to the leather pants responsible for "I'm Too Sexy." Actually, it probably wasn't even SXSW organizers who gave the band a showcase. More likely it was one of the conference's interns. Several times during the weekend, you could overhear a SXSW volunteer proudly proclaiming that he/she got his/her friend a gig. Who says SXSW's gotten too big, too cynical, too ridiculous? Uh, everybody. Dallas' own Commercials, complaining three weeks ago about not making the SXSW cut, ought to consider themselves lucky. Guilt by association, and all that.

For 13 years, music bizzers have been schlepping down to Austin for four days of rhythm and schmooze, arriving on Wednesday full of high hopes of hearing The Next Buzz Band and leaving on Sunday with expense-account receipts and a hangover. Oh, some bands come away from Austin with deals--but does anyone really remember the Chickasaw Mudd Puppies or Veruca Salt? Better to admit it now and move on: South by Southwest is just music-biz speak for spring break.

Despite ex-Austinite Lucinda Williams' 90-minute keynote address at the Austin Convention Center, which was more singing than talking (and thank God), it's easy to be cynical about the music business when days are spent attending panels with names like "Wall Street and the Music Industry: Like Oil and Water?" or "What's Ahead for Retail?" or "How Do You Get That A&R Job?" and nights are spent trolling the streets for just one...good...band to make it all seem worthwhile. It got to the point on Friday night that hearing hoary ex-MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer "Kick Out the Jams" one more damned time provided a little sad salvation. At least it, well, rocked--even if those jams could use a little trimming. He'll be playing that song till he dies...I mean the same version he started on Saturday night at Emo's. Last I checked, he was still on stage Monday afternoon, trying to find the last note. He'll never find it. It's in 1969.

SXSW began in 1987 as a rather modest affair, housed in the Marriott and contained in a couple dozen clubs around town. It was low-key: For years, the biggest star to play the conference was Mojo Nixon. Thirteen years later, Mojo's husky and anonymous, walking through the trade show in the convention center like a trucker looking for directions. No one's fooling anyone anymore. In 1999, it's all about the big-name showcases, the signed bands, the special-secret-super-wow surprise guests: Jeff Beck, L7 (uh...), Built to Spill (three gigs during the conference), Guided By Voices, Cibo Matto, the Flaming Lips, and Tom Waits.

Now, it's all about the private (hahaha) parties during the afternoon, the gratis booze-and-barbecue shindigs at the Broken Spoke or the Green Mesquite, where alternacountry bands drone in the background and audience members don't even pretend to pay attention. This year, David Byrne was billed as the headliner at the Raygun magazine party at the Lucky Lounge and merely stood on a stage and played CDs--all of which he's released on his Luaka Bop label. Watching the former Talking Heads frontman hit play is like...like...you know, there's really nothing more boring.

It's easy to get cynical about SXSW when there's so much good music around, and the only people there to hear it are the faithful handful who listen with their ears and hearts, not someone else's checkbook. Kathy McCarty, ex of Austin's Glass Eye and still among the finest singer-songwriter-guitarists in Texas, played a heartbreakingly perfect set Friday night on the patio of the Buffalo Club. She overcame the whump-bump-bum of the disco booming across the alley and the racket bleeding out from inside the venue and delivered acoustic pop songs so wry, fragile, and sweet, they melted as soon as they hit the air.

Yet McCarty has not released a record in five years, since her album of Daniel Johnston covers called Dead Dog's Eyeball. She can't afford to do it on her own and has yet even to talk in the abstract with a single label willing to risk a few bucks on a woman who deserves to be heard by more than the 100 locals who showed up to pay their respects. "I'm gonna rip through my set in case there's anyone out there who has money bags with dollar signs on them and wants to throw them up here and go, 'Oh, you are a genius,'" McCarty said, smiling like she didn't care...only, like, she did. One label exec had promised to show up. He, of course, did not.

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